American Roots Music: The Song of Rural America 1920-1960

Louis Rosen under the aegis of the 92Y.

“What IS American Roots Music,” our host begins. “Even 40 years ago, it probably wouldn’t have been referred to as such. Is `Yankee Doodle’ American Roots Music – that goes back to Revolutionary? What about Stephen Foster who wrote for that unique form of American entertainment, the minstrel show? The idea of folk music emerged in 18th Century Europe referring to music of peasants…”

Rosen posits that, in truth, only Native American Indian Music, considered “indigenous” and African American spirituals, born here as a result of the catastrophic collision of cultures, qualify. Many of the most famous folk songs are reimagined Irish, English, or German ballads. Joni Mitchell just put out a four-disc set of unreleased material. The first, mostly Celtic, can be categorized as folk songs. 

“One of the points I want to make is that because we’re all mutts in this country, the music is all transformed from other cultures,” the host remarks. Nothing is purely American, the term arose from regional music whose popularity spread when it was recorded and sold elsewhere. In other words, the record industry is responsible for the term.

Musicians who plied their trade at dances, fairs, weddings and street corners didn’t think of themselves as playing roots music. They performed whatever was popular. Much of this was passed down through oral tradition i.e. not copyrighted. New laws offered opportunity to producers. A.P. Carter, who formed the first Carter family band (June Carter Cash’s folks), was a song collector as well as a traveling salesman in Central Appalachia. He’d bring a song to cousin Maybelle, she’d change it a little, they’d copyright and perform it.

When southern Blacks migrated north, they took their music and their taste, opening markets. The “new” genre included what was originally known as “Race Music” which became Rhythm and Blues and Hillbilly Music which became Country & Western. (One group was recorded as The Hill Billies. Before long, the name came to represent a whole field of music.) We listen to a recording of “Bonaparte’s Retreat” by Kentucky fiddler William H. Stepp, followed by Aaron Copland conducting his own “Rodeo,” a version of “Retreat.” “Copland takes it whole cloth putting it into a larger frame,” Rosen comments. “And nowhere does it say ‘based on…’”

“The idea emerged that this particular music hadn’t been corrupted by urban elements,” Rosen notes. Bob Dylan said, “…when they say keep it simple, that it (folk music) should be easily understood-folk music is the only music where it isn’t simple…I’ve never written anything hard to understand, not in my head anyway, and nothing as far out as some of the old songs.” Dylan brought a unique songwriter voice to folk music until he strapped on an electric guitar in 1965.

We listen to two versions of “The Coo Coo Bird” (original spelling) by Clarence Ashley, one with vocal and banjo from 1929, and Dylan’s reinterpretation recorded with guitar in 1962. The song might be categorized as folk, but Rosen points out verses don’t have any logical relationship to one another. So, what does it mean?

“We Americans are all coo coo. We make our homes in the nests of other birds.” (Oliver Wendell Holmes) “The coo coo (an outsider) lays its eggs in the nests of other birds leaving its progeny to be raised by others. If the host bird removes the eggs, the coo coo may take revenge…” (Griel Marcus from the Anthology booklet.) Verses for “I Wish Was a Mole in the Ground” (Bascom Lamar Lansford) seem equally unrelated. “So is this really as disconnected as it seems or are there code words that might be understood within a culture?” the host asks.

In 1920, business changed with the release of Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues.” Talent scout, engineer, producer Ralph Peer of Okeh Records had little faith in it, but the record sold 100,000 copies the first month. Considering not everyone owned a (cranked) record player, this was extraordinary. Recording equipment got less cumbersome. Peer and others like him would travel the south putting up notices for auditions, paying singer/song-writers $50 for each, accruing copyrights. “Over the next few years the producer would record all the important jazz artists of the time,” the host comments.

Fiddlin’ John Carson. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

At its 1921 high point, the record business was doing $105 million – one billion six hundred and five million in 2021. By 1923, sales were down to ninety million. Radio was emerging. Producer Polk Brockman convinced Peer to record fiddler/songster John Carson by personally guaranteeing the sale of 500 copies. Peer considered “The Little Old Cabin in the Lane” and “The Old Hen Cackled at the Rooster’s Crow” (hillbilly music) awful, but had nothing to lose. The roughly made recording sold out almost overnight. Brockman ordered 10,000 more and Peer arranged for the Carson to go to New York to record. The musician became the first country star.

Eccentric filmmaker and song collector Harry Smith’s seminal “The Anthology of American Folk Music” would set the standard in 1952 (also without paying a cent in royalties). Made up of 84 folk, blues, and country recordings originally issued from 1926 to 1933, it became the bible for folk resurgence in the 1950s and 1960s.  Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, The Weavers and young Bob Dylan found it fertile ground.

At this point Rosen circles back to spirituals which we’re told are of two types 1. Jubilee (exciting) and 2. Sorrow Songs (deliverance). “Both offer salvation in the next world,” he says. We listen to selections from Paul Robeson’s concert for Greenwich House in 1925, for the first time a presentation made up entirely of spirituals. “These songs have the substance of Schubert or Schumann lieder,” the host remarks. Robeson, with pianist/vocalist Lawrence Brown reaches the ear resonant and pure.

Louis Rosen

End Part I in which we explore the roots of (roots) folk music.

The songs of Broadway and Tin Pan Alley dominated the urban airwaves during the first half of the 20th Century, but folk, hillbilly music — now known as country — gospel, bluegrass, western swing, blues, Cajun and zydeco were the sounds of rural America.” Louis Rosen

Opening photos Left: American blues singer Mamie Smith by unknown photographer. Permission details-It is believed that images published in excess of seventy years are in the public domain and the use of this image is permitted under U.S. copyright law covering public domain images. Source – Wikimedia Commons

Right: A.P., Maybelle and Sara Carter 1927. Carter family promotional photo by the Victor Talking Machine Company. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

This is a 13 week class.

Among Rosen’s other single class programs coming up are:

BOB DYLAN 80TH Birthday Celebration, Part VI: THE BASEMENT TAPES                Sunday, October 3, 2021, 1:30 to 3:30

THE BEATLES, Part VII: MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR – The Album, the Film and a Psychedelic Odyssey Sunday
October 17, 2021, 1:30 to 3:30

BOB DYLAN 80TH Birthday Celebration, Part VII: JOHN WESLEY HARDING to NEW MORNING Sunday, November 7, 2021, 1:30 to 3:30

THE BEATLES, Parts VIII and IX: THE WHITE ALBUM, COMPLETE                              Sunday, November 21, 2021, 1:30 to 4

Tickets from the 92Y

Louis Rosen – musician/songwriter/author/educator  

About Alix Cohen (1169 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.